During the first World War, two French soldiers are captured and imprisoned in a German P.O.W. camp. Several escape attempts follow until they are sent to a seemingly impenetrable fortress which seems impossible to escape from.
In this fable-morality subtitled "A Song of Two Humans", the "evil" temptress is a city woman who bewitches farmer Anses and tries to convince him to murder his neglected wife, Indre. Written by
I am a big fan of the silent era, especially the German expressionist films, and I would have to say that although there are many great silent films-- Metropolis, Pandora's Box, The Wind, etc.-- this film is my favorite. I feel that it is Murnau's greatest film. While it does not have the social implications of his films such as "Nosferatu" or "Faust," the cinematography, acting, and Murnau's unabashed belief in the power of love helps this film to rise above the rest.
The acting is sterling, with a 21-year-old Janet Gaynor looking incredibly similar to Drew Barrymore, and delivering a layered performance that reveals her character's strong but tenuous emotional state. I suspect that George O'Brien wasn't exactly what Murnau wanted for his lead actor, due to the lengths that Murnau went to to extract O'Brien's performance, but credit is due the actor for a performance which was brave at times and never ego-centric.
Murnau's use of symbolism and metaphor are suppressed compared to the standards of his other films. In this film their use is more to augment the story rather than actually being the story under the narrative. One example is the fish nets waving the wind as O'Brien returns home from his tryst with the dark seductress, a terrific metaphor for his entrapment and helplessness.
The story itself is one that can appeal to many audiences, as it has its fair share of melodrama, comedy, sap, and suspense. I saw this film with my 17-year-old nephew, who is your typical disaffected digital generation teenager, and he was awful quiet during the dramatic sequences and awful loud during the comic portions. It is amazing how I my own emotions were manipulated by the film without Murnau ever being manipulative or obvious.
The true star of this film, of course, is the cinematography. It is simply awesome. I have done a lot of work with old film cameras, and I have no clue how Strauss managed some of the shots he did. Murnau was one of the first directors, if not the first, to use camera motion during a film. This was no small feat in the days where the camera was not motorized and had to be hand-cranked. The camera movement is amazing. There is a shot where O'Brien moves through the swamp, with wet, muddy, and uneven ground, to meet the woman from the city, and the camera tracks along with him. It looks like a steadicam shot! No track could have performed this shot as it exists, and I have no explanation on how he did this other than that he must have suspended the camera from the ceiling of the studio. Shooting a swamp scene with fog and a full moon in a studio is a feat in itself. There are also other feats of cinematography. There are several shots where the city is the typical cardboard cutout, there are people milling around in the street, yet the trains and trolleys are obviously models. HOW????? If you are able to get the DVD with the cinematography commentary, it is well worth the investment.
To the king of the silents... 10/10
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